Farewell, Fellow Traveler Michael Weinstein

Farewell, Fellow Traveler Michael Weinstein

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“Good rock ’n’ roll is something that makes you feel alive,” the great rock critic Lester Bangs told me at a formative age when that notion shaped my life. “To me good rock ’n’ roll also encompasses other things… a lot of things that aren’t strictly defined as rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll is an attitude.”

Few would think that a septuagenarian political philosophy professor with some two dozen books to his credit and a sideline as a deep-thinking photography critic would strictly be defined as “rock ’n’ roll.” But Michael A. Weinstein had the attitude, to be certain, and he was more alive than almost anyone I’ve ever met. What’s more, he had a singular ability to share that passion for living with everyone he encountered. And now he’s dead—on Thursday, at the age of 73, or thereabouts.

Things like a formal biography, academic titles, and a long list of accomplishments in a Curriculum Vitae never mattered to Mike. What always meant the most to him was the next experience, the next conversation, the next idea, or the next pleasure, which he invariably and loudly embraced in the nasal New York accent he never shook: “Yes. Yes! YES!”

I met Mike through his wife and soul mate Deena Weinstein, longtime sociology professor at DePaul University, and author of a fantastic book about heavy metal for which I profiled her shortly after I arrived at The Chicago Sun-Times in the early ’90s. We became fast friends, though that word hardly does justice to the intellectual mentor role she and eventually Michael also played. For years, she insisted that I absolutely had to meet Michael, whom she clearly adored. A tenured professor at Purdue University in Lafayette, Mike made the weekly commute from Indiana to spend the days between classes with his beloved in Chicago, and they obviously cherished every elusive moment together.

“I will not break the semipermeable membrane of privacy that surrounds our intimacy of more than half a century of shared life,” Deena writes in the introduction to Michael’s final and many say definitive book, Action, Contemplation, Vitalism, published last December by the prestigious academic press Routledge. “Discussing Michael Weinstein’s cooking, lovemaking, driving, companionship, and sweet temperament is beyond the scope of this book. Relevant and most importantly, we have shared an intellectual life from the beginning.”

The scope of that intellect first smacked me upside the head at a guest lecture Mike gave at DePaul; he was a frequent speaker at many classes in Chicago, in addition to doing a stint as a resident lecturer at Columbia College’s photography department. His theme that night was living as a “love pirate,” a cogent and vastly entertaining distillation of the more complex ideas in his second greatest book Culture Flesh, which would only be slighted by describing it as a postmodern manifesto. (One simple label never fit anything Michael did.)

Basically, Dr. Weinstein believed we should all live as pirates, swinging on the lines from the deck of one raided ship to another, picking up life-affirming ideas and exciting elements of culture for our virtual treasure chests wherever we find them—right or left, mainstream or underground, in the academy or on the street corner. We should all be, he thought, human samplers, creating dense, vibrant, and undeniable collages of intellectual riffs and rhythms—philosophical versions of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, if you will, though when it came to hip-hop, he preferred West Coast.

When my biography of Bangs was published in 2000, I formed a band with fellow Chicago rock critics (plus Jon Langford, as great a ringer as can be imagined) to play songs by or important to my hero at the publication party. Deena loved this idea and twisted my arm to keep renting the practice space to make music with a new band that she put together with a friend who’d been a roadie for Manowar, bassist Randy Kertz, one of her best former students, guitarist Tony Tavano, and, as lead singer, of course, her beloved.

Vortis Mach I, from left: Tony Tavano, F.T., Randy Kertz, and the drummer (Marty Perez).

Michael had sung raunchy R&B in a ’50s-style rock band back in the day, and he would often do raps in class about subjects like African genocide and global corporatization. His role models for becoming what he called an “agitainer” and assaulting the hegemony via punk rock were Ice Cube, Iggy Pop, and Noam Chomsky. His nom de rock was F.T., or Fellow Traveler, though most of the people we encountered playing the Empty Bottle or the Fireside Bowl simply called him “the Professor.” In his T-shirt, with his shaggy gray beard and omnipresent do-rag, he didn’t look very professorial, and could in fact be mistaken for a homeless man—until he started singing/rapping about the Unabomber or the Black Block riots, synopsizing his day-job lectures for his between-song stage patter at night.

The name Vortis came from Mike after he couldn’t stop enthusing about how great one early rehearsal had been. “You’re the music critic, how would you describe what we just did?” he gushed. “Um, well, whenever a band clicks, it’s sort of like being in the middle of a vortex.” “Yes. Yes! YES!”

For our next rehearsal, the professor arrived with 20 pages of notes for each of us about Vorticism, a modernist movement in British art and poetry circa World War I which found key proponents such as Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound extolling “violent structures of adolescent clarity.” I took that to mean living with the lust for life of a teenager no matter what your chronological age, as solid a definition of rock ’n’ roll as I’ve encountered, and a pretty good summary of Michael Weinstein.

In time, Vortis recorded a self-released E.P., two albums for Thick Records, and an unreleased third disc, in addition to playing a lot of gigs in Chicago and as far afield as Cleveland, Minneapolis, Detroit, and Ann Arbor. Here’s Monica Kendrick writing about the second incarnation of the band—another of Deena’s students, Chris Martiniano, replaced Dr. Kertz, now a chiropractor who specializes in musicians’ injuries—for The Reader in 2005:

If you told me five years ago that the most compelling front man in the Chicago punk scene this decade would be a sixty-something political science professor with an anarchist ax to grind, I would’ve said, “Well sure, why not?” I’d like to think we’re above obsessing over a guy’s age just because he’s not in the usual 15-to-25 punk-draftable demographic. F.T., aka Fellow Traveler, aka Mike Weinstein of Purdue University, comes at you with a fiendish gravitas, rattling off hardcore antiauthoritarian manifestos and voicing all the bad thoughts (“I want to have my own suitcase bomb”) that regular folks are afraid to express these days. Onstage he works a street-preacher-Jello Biafra persona, getting in your face with wild eyes full of conviction—you just know his brain’s filled with the footnotes to back up his lyrics. Vortis’s forthcoming album, Warzone, is mean, tight, righteously pissed, and full of hooky, nasty sloganeering choruses—and if you’re like me you might relish the frisson of hearing yourself chanting them.

Vortis Mach II with Martiniano second from left.
Onstage at Nevin's, frightening Evanston.

Stories? Martiniano, Tavano, and I have quite a few. Chris, now a Ph.D. himself, fondly recalled Michael’s ability to hear us tinkering with a riff; take out the little notebook that was a permanent fixture in his back pocket; wander the halls of the rehearsal space for 20 minutes, then come back with some unbelievable set of lyrics about the complex political dilemma of the moment, something you might well hear him talking about with only slightly different language and inflection on WBEZ’s Worldview or at an academic symposium like this one.

Tony, also an educator, loves the story of the time one of Mike’s students from Purdue threw a burning flag onstage. That plus the professor’s choruses for “God Won’t Bless America Again” prompted a guy who’d been playing pool in the back room to punch him in the face. In a fine profile for The Purdue Exponent in 2003, Mike said he was only sorry that the aggrieved club-goer didn’t understand the song’s message. (It attacked American exceptionalism and the hubristic belief that this country can export its version of democracy wherever it pleases, though punk rock can of course obscure the most solid of theses.)

Me, I’ll never forget the many tales from our Midwestern tour in the summer of ’03, or the great life advice my friend dispensed about career and relationships. But if I have to pick one story that sums up both his eccentricities and his love-pirate philosophy, it would be waking up in a fleabag motel outside Columbus to find him naked but for the tiniest bikini briefs, perched on one leg with hands above his head in a yoga pose. I complained about how I’d been eaten alive all night by the swarm of mosquitoes infesting the room. “Oh, I didn’t mind at all,” he said. “They’re my entomological friends!”

Mike talked about that tour and the band in the Exponent piece. “I have to say by this time, the drugs, groupies and record deal signing no longer have the appeal that they once did,” he joked. “It is gratuitous to my life; it’s not fulfilling some life-long dream. It is a way for me to make a political presence that I can’t in class.”

Still, the Professor never did anything less than wholeheartedly, whether it was our little musical project or the decades he devoted to his other extracurricular activity of writing photography criticism for New City, a paper he loved for its feisty independent spirit. (As a critic, he always tried to read his reviews to the artists in person after he’d written them, whether they wanted to hear them or not.) He strived to be the best at anything he did, not out of egotism, but because something just wasn’t worth doing if it wasn’t worth doing 100-percent.

The clash between the lead singer’s view of the band and his bandmates’ (we considered it more of a hobby) plus the inevitable list of minor grievances that can pile up during any collaboration (though he was open to all views, Mike ultimately did things one way—his own) led to him leaving Vortis in 2009. (The band continues as a trio with Tavano, me, and Louie Calvano, who’d filled in for Martiniano a few times and also found F.T. unlike anyone else he’d ever met.) Mike said he was leaving to concentrate on his political writings, though Chris believes he thought he’d done all he could do on the punk-rock stage, at least with us.

I remember something that Deena or Mike told me in another context. (I honestly can’t recall which of them said it, though they shared so many ideas, it might have been both.) “Mentors are great, but at some point, you have to move beyond them. You have to!”

True enough, perhaps, in terms of the day to day. But we carry with us forever those rare and special individuals’ ideas and the things we loved about them. And like the students, colleagues, readers, and artists whose lives and thoughts he so enriched, Vortis will cherish its founding singer forever.

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